No, I’m not abandoning you. While I’m away on holiday, here’s a list of books you can pick up. Each one has touched me deeply.
The Village – Nikita Lalwani
Ray Bhullar is of Indian origin and lives in England. She works with the BBC and comes with a team to film an open prison in India. The people live together like a village. Prisoners are allowed to go out of the camp to work and the condition for living in this open prison is that you must bring your family to live with you and earn your living. The idea is to rehabilitate as well as give trust to beget trust. The host of the show is Nathan, an ex-con who will bring in nuance, since he has done time too.
It’s an interesting concept and I’m quite ashamed to admit that I was unaware of the existence of nearly 30 open jails in India. The story is interesting and I loved the choice of topic. So unusual. Viewing an Indian prison sometimes through firangi eyes and at other times through the NRIs eyes.
If I have any complaint, it is that I found the pace a little slow. Perhaps the idea was to build atmosphere, but it didn’t work. It took what could have been done in half the number of pages and dragged it on until I was begging for it to end. I know that is not high praise, but I don’t mean it that way. Definitely a story worth reading to show you how manipulative the human race is.
Awake – Elizabeth Graver
Anna Simon’s son Max has a strange and rare disease that doesn’t allow him out in the sun. The entire family, including her other son, Adam and her husband, need to restructure their lives to work with his condition and it’s not very easy. They live like creatures of the night; windows blacked out, a sign at the door that tells people not to push it open and suddenly let light in, sleeping in the day and waking at night, finding night time activities to do and so on. So night is day and day is night and they live a completely inverted life. Holidays and trips are out of course, until one day they hear of Camp Luna. A camp for children just like Max, set up by a father whose daughter has the same problem. Everything here is carried out at night; games, picnics, parties. For once, Max is normal and everyone else is out of place. It is here under cover of darkness that things begin to unravel.
This book reminded me of Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper. One can’t help but feel very very sorry for the siblings of children with disabilities. They suffer a strange sort of neglect. So do spouses. Here is yet another obsessive mother, working hard to give her son what life didn’t. And in the bargain, alienating everyone else. But she comes to Camp Luna and it inspires her to go back to the artist and person she was. An interesting book with none of the moral dilemma that Picoult offers. Simply an observation and commentary on life. Very nice.
Silk – Alessandro Baricco
I fell in love with the name when I saw this book on the rack. So simple. Silk. Reminded me of the chocolate. It is set in 1861 (yes, yes, you know me and my love for the past) and a French merchant of silkworms, Herve Joncour travels across the world in search of their eggs. His travels bring him to Japan at a time when strangers were treated with distrust and suspicion. And there Joncour meets a woman – a woman he can never have. They don’t even speak or touch, but she feels the same way about him. I’m always intrigued by these stories. She gets a note across to him and he can’t read it until he gets back to his own country and gets someone to translate. And once he reads it, there is no turning back.
Does this happen? Is there a stranger who crossed your path, one you’ve never forgotten? Can you fall so deeply in love with someone you’ve never even spoken to? Is that love? He goes back for her and well, I’ll leave you to read the rest.
Nothing grips me like a love story. I believe they are only stories worth telling. The only thing you can change is the setting. And considering how common love stories are, finding an unusual setting is not easy. This was an interesting one. The 1800s, a Frenchman, a Japanese woman he has never spoken to. I am always fascinated by how good authors can pick a time and a place and a couple you’ve never met before. The same holds true for the next book in this list. A Canadian woman, a Cambodian man, Canada and Cambodia in the 70s, so much music…
The Disappeared – Kim Echlin
I must be growing old and senile, because I could swear I wrote a post on this book. I did a search on my blog and couldn’t find it so I’m just going to do it anyway. If I’ve raved about this book before, bear with me. Anne Greves meets Serey at a blues bar in the early 70s when she is 16. I read that early scene and wished I were her. Who wouldn’t want to meet a long haired musician with a penchant for math (or something else equally geeky), from an exotic country, in a smokey bar?! It’s almost as the hero was created for me. A grouse many readers have is that you don’t see why Anne loves Serey so. Eh? Why does anyone love anyone. We all have our intense loves and I am sure no one looking from the outside in can see why we’re so besotted, why we’re hungering, why we’re crying. I didn’t have that peeve. To me it was rather obvious. There was so much music, so much chemistry, so much.
They fall in love and they live happily … well, not ever after. The borders open up and he returns to Cambodia to hunt for his family. For those who have any desire to learn about the Cambodian genocide and for those who have never even heard of it, this is your chance. It makes you feel dirty to know that you are a part of the human race that is capable of inflicting such pain. Well, that and so much else that history is witness to.
The writing is simply brilliant. It’s poetry. I read it over and over again. Going back and forth between chapters like a maniac just to experience a particular emotion again. Wanting to know that love, be that love. And suddenly, fearing that love. He disappears into the ashes and the blood of the killing fields and she despairs of ever hearing from him. Years go by and then suddenly one day she catches a glimpse of someone who looks just like him, on the news. Full of hope she leaves Canada to plunge into the horror that is the Cambodia of during the Pol Pot time. Does she find him? Let me put you out of your misery and admit that she does. But that is not the end. Oh no, we’re a long way from the end.
People keep dying in this book. Her mother, their still born daughter, and yet you keep reading because you can’t stop yourself. Anne’s love is the kind we all promise our lovers but rarely fulfill. It goes beyond the grave. I can’t tell you more without giving away the story. Suffice to say, if you want to read about love, if you want to read poetry, if you want to know how far violence can go, if you want to know how depraved a human can be, if you want to know how deep an ache can feel, this is where you will find the answers. Like all books that have a soundtrack to them, this one too had me hooked with the first song. Read Kim Echlin’s interview on music here – I have a deep rooted belief that every good writer has a love for music. Whenever I’m asked about a favourite book, I go back to this one. It’s seared into my heart.
The Lady of The Rivers – Phillipa Gregory
I’m a PG fan. I love her writing, her research, her choice of subjects. If you can keep in mind that she takes liberties with her characters, you’re set. Intrigued by Jacquetta of Luxembourg who makes brief but important appearances in the lives of other major players, Gregory chooses to write about her. Historically you are not learning anything new, but again, to me, this was a love story. The Duchess who lowered herself to marry the blue-eyed squire after she was widowed. It wasn’t easy to remind myself that this was partly fiction.
She takes you through the Lancaster court and introduces you to the main players of the House of York. And all the while, the love story plays on. There must be more to it because I cannot understand Jacquetta and her husband Richard’s loyalty to Queen Margaret, who is clearly manipulative and untrustworthy. An interesting book because once more it brings out magic, chemistry and so much else beyond our ken. A fey twist to history.
The world according to Garp – John Irving
I find myself ill-equipped to talk about this book, but I must find a way to share it with you. I should probably have read it 10 years ago because I seem to have denied myself 10 years of absolute brilliance. Garp is the illegitimate son of Jenny Fields. Who inadvertently becomes a feminist when she writes her autobiography. Garp marries his boxing coach’s daughter Helen Holm and has a strangely open marriage. He writes one bestseller novel and spends a lifetime trying to recreate that success.
There are many mini-stories that make up the book and as I said, I’m a little overwhelmed and unsure of where to begin. There are the Ellen Jamesians, women who are protesting the rape of a little girl whose tongue was cut out to prevent her from identifying the rapists – they’ve all cut their tongues out to show their support. There is the transsexual who was a football player, there is Garp’s own literary success that flows in and out of his narrative. Structurally it is amazing to be able to pull something like this off, because at no point does Irving lose the plot. And its a triumph for the reader to be able to just keep up and admire his skill.
Darkly comic, you come across rape and mutilation in every second chapter and yet, it doesn’t get you down. It is a commentary on the early feminist movement and there is something about the book that mocks anything and anyone who takes themselves too seriously. If I had to draw a parallel, it would be to a Govinda movie where nothing is implausible – and yet it is a classic. Just when you think nothing worse can happen, it does, in the most gruesome way and you find yourself laughing in horror. Raising the absurd to more than an art form, this is a book that should be read every five years. I’m sure it will bring you an entirely different layer each time. I don’t know if I’ve made any sense. Suffice to say – read it. You won’t regret it.
The Sealed Letter – Emma Donoghue
Every time I pick up an Emma Donoghue, I can’t help but be blown away by how each book is so starkly different, such a different voice, such a different time, place, idea. I’m not religious, but these are the kind of writers I’d like to build temples to. This one is based on a real story that shocked Victorian London. Vice Admiral Codrington has just returned from Malta with his much younger wife, Helen and their two daughters. Barely into the book you realise she is having an affair with a younger, dashing Colonel Anderson. The story later reveals that this is not the first of her indiscretions. Encouraged by prudish friends, he files for a divorce. Caught up in this mess is Emily Faithfull aka Fido, an old friend, who eventually drifted away because she was unwittingly forced to bear witness to their frequent quarreling. But Helen is back in her life, demanding her friendship and demanding that she go beyond the call of friendship. From using her living room in the afternoon and letting Fido hear the squeak of the sofa springs going up and down, to eventually living with her when her husband throws her out, Helen uses her friend quite shamelessly. I’m not sure if the book is ungenerous to her or if it is just me, but I felt no compassion for Helen who is so busy conducting her affair that she misses a telegram calling her home to her sick child.
I’m not usually very judgmental about extra marital affairs, specially in books (didn’t I once do a post on that?), but the moment there is a neglected child involved I change sides like a baingan. It’s just unfair for kids to be trapped in a mess. Anyhow, getting back to the book, it’s a fascinating account of divorce in Victorian England, and of the early women’s movement, again. Accusations of rape, hints of lesbianism and a sealed letter that contains… well, only one way for you to find out. Divorce proceedings anyway bring out the worst in people and you’re forced to take a harsher stand than you had any intention of. This sordid affair too, ends up with dirty linen being washed in public and I can’t help but shudder at how easy it is to get into a relationship and how hard to end it.
Once again, Donoghue has a winner. And I’m looking for funding to set up that temple to her. What? If someone like Khushboo *choke* can have a temple, I don’t see why people who really deserve it shouldn’t! And the more I read books of this sort, the harder it becomes to restrain myself from pelting Chetan Bhagat’s house with rotten tomatoes.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
I believe the publishers owe me something on this one. I’ve recommended this book to everyone, all the time. It is 1946 and Guernsey is under German occupation. And then one day author Juliet Aston gets a letter from Dawsey Adams who has come into possession of a book that once belonged to her. Their love of reading kicks off a correspondence and soon she gets to know all about life in Guernsey. The authors have used letters as their storytelling device and there is something simple, satisfying and comforting about the story. I’ve yet to have one friend get back to me saying they were unhappy with it. It’s that breath of fresh air from a slower time, that all of us need. A lovely, lazy, feel good holiday read.